My love affair that I have had with the Sprint Cup Series for over thirty years actually began at what is now considered one of the most iconic tracks on the entire schedule. The year was 1984 and my wife and I along with John Phillips and his family were heading to Myrtle Beach for a few days. In those days there was really only one way to get to the beach and it just happened to pass by the front of Darlington Raceway.
While driving by the track on our way south, we noticed that the then Winston Cup Series would be at the track that Sunday for the running of the Trans South Financial 400. Up to this point my only exposure to the sport was the recap of a race on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. They would take a 500 mile race and reduce it to a 10 minute highlight reel that would catch your attention because it was always filled with wrecks and side by side racing.
Those 10 minute highlight reels were enough for us to pull into the parking lot of the track and walk into the ticket office to see if they had any left. They not only had tickets left, a man took us up the hill and inside the track to pick out the seats we wanted. This was only four days before the race but we picked what we thought were some of the best seats on the front stretch and were quickly informed that he could get us those tickets for a whopping fifteen dollars each.
When we got back into the car to leave, all we really knew for sure was that we had six of the best tickets fifteen dollars could buy but had no clue what to expect on race day. Once at the beach we spent a lot of time trying to figure out not only what to bring to the race but also what we should wear so we wouldn’t stick out as a first timer.
We decided that we would go with a “beautiful gold Myrtle Beach t-shirt but our ace in the hole was we were going to stop at the Colonel’s in nearby Florence, SC and get the biggest bucket of fried chicken that he sold. To take our race experience to the next level we stopped at a gas station and bought a small cooler filled with cold Pepsi.
Once parked in a big ol’ corn field across from the track, we started our hike to the track with a big bucket of chicken, new cooler and gold shirts with what we thought were the best fifteen dollar seats in the track. Those seats were down close to the track (closer was better we thought) and all that seat consisted of was a very rough slab of well-worn concrete.
We couldn’t wait for the race to start so we could start eating chicken and drinking a Pepsi. What we didn’t realize was that we were so close to the action that every time the cars came by that we were hit with a windstorm of worn tire rubber and sand. We also didn’t realize how loud a Winston Cup race was as we had no ear plugs but we did have that big bucket of chicken and a cooler of Pepsi!
Now as far as our racing knowledge, we knew enough that we were all Richard Petty fans and we stood up every time he went by. The only problem was that he got a hole in his oil pan and he only last about seven laps. Once Petty went out, our attention for some reason turned to Harry Gant as we were told by someone that sat behind us (this was before the race started and our hearing went away as fast as the Pepsi in the small cooler) he was one of the good old boys with a big future in the sport. So with a piece of the Colonel’s best in our hand, we instantly became huge Gant fans and lucky for us he came home second to race winner Darrell Waltrip.
The Southern 500 returns to Darlington this Labor Day weekend for the first time in several years and with it will be a flood of memories of our first race. It is still one of the best days that I ever spent at a track and I am still trying to find a piece of chicken that tastes as good as that bucket of the Colonel’s.
Event: Bojangle’s Southern 500
Track: Darlington Raceway (1.366 mile egg-shaped oval, banking in turns 1/2 – 25o, 3/4 – 23o)
Date: Sept. 6, 7 p.m.
Defending Champion: Kevin Harvick